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For Minnesota woman, life of service is life well-lived

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The Brooks' story ran in National Geographic.
Rhoda and Earle Brooks' description of their time in Manta, Ecuador became a 1964 cover story for National Geographic magazine.
Dan Olson | MPR News

There aren't many Minnesotans who've lived a life worthy of a National Geographic cover, so you'll want to listen to Rhoda Brooks. She has some stories to tell.

"That was the beach where we lived. There are all the dugout canoes, that's teaching making baby food, that's my baby food class," Brooks narrated as she leafed through photos recently on her 80th birthday.

The photos are from a National Geographic from the mid-1960s. Brooks and her late husband Earle were among the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers, and they were assigned to Ecuador. The magazine traced their journey.

The Peace Corps was a brand new idea then, created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Rhoda and Earle were in their 20s and filled with passion and idealism for doing good. But there wasn't much that could prepare them as they lived and worked in a very poor neighborhood in the coastal city of Manta where residents lived in dire poverty.

"Poor drinking water, intestinal parasites, disease," she recalled. "There was a huge epidemic when we arrived. People were dying of the bubonic plague."

The Brooks family posed in a dugout canoe.
The Brooks family, including two children adopted in Ecuador, posed in the United States in the dugout canoe they had shipped home.
Courtesy Rhoda Brooks

From that time on, she's been committed to community service. She's been a teacher, helped open a summer camp for children with learning disabilities. In between, she's raised kids, co-written a book on her experiences and appeared on a game show.

To this day, the Excelsior, Minn., woman follows the Peace Corps dictum: "We're not here to tell you what your needs are, we want you to tell us what your needs are."

Click on the audio bar above to hear Brooks' stories — and a tune she played on her homemade ukulele.